Magic, Science & Poetry: The Alchemy of Yoga

Recently a friend of mine ~ a wonderful artist who spends quite a bit of time working & playing in Hawaii ~ told me the story of spending several months (one summer a couple of years ago) sleeping in an orchard, in Hawaii. The nights were mild, and so this was a very pleasant place to be: warm air, starlight, the scent of blossoming trees. One night, when my friend was particularly relaxed, and feeling spiritually & emotionally “expansive,” there appeared to her (in a dream? on the screen of her third eye?) a group of plant devas ~ fairy-like light-beings ~ who proceeded to describe to her, in great detail, the way that each spring they would hover (like a flock of hummingbirds) among the branches of the orchard trees, creating ~ with the joyful-bright vibration of their wings ~ the energy (of love & delight & celebration) necessary for the trees then to blossom and ~ later ~ bear fruit.

Now this is an explanation (for the blossoming & fruit-bearing capacity of trees) quite different from what I would likely receive from, say, a university-trained horticulturist, yes? My friend’s (or at least the plant-devas’) explanation might be called “magical” or even “miraculous.” The horticultural explanation: decidedly “scientific.” The difference, on first glance, between the two might seem quite clear, quite obvious.

Yet if we look a little more deeply we discover that oftentimes what is called “magical” or “miraculous” are simply those events that lie beyond the current understanding (outside of the conceptual frameworks) of those perceiving them. The other day, in a yoga studio, I noticed a potted plant whose vines were ~ with one exception ~ all growing horizontally along the shelf the pot was resting on, or else draping downward over its edges. There was just a single vine that was growing straight upward, hugging the wall. To me in seemed quite miraculous âÂ?¦ like some sort of “magic” was at play, which had been accessed by that one vine, and not the rest.

What I soon learned was that vines of this sort have tiny suction-cup-like structures, which allow them ~ when they come into contact with a wall ~ to attach and climb, in the way that I was seeing. Once I understood this, that single vine was to me no longer so mysterious; its actions (of climbing) were no longer something I would call “magic.” For now I was in possession of a “scientific” explanation.

Similarly, there are certain magicians/illusionists (existing most famously, perhaps, in India), who are able ~ via slight-of-hand techniques and/or the chanting of mantras ~ to create the appearance of, say, a cobra âÂ?¦ when no such thing actually exists. Members of their audience consider the appearance of the snake to be “miraculous,” while the illusionists themselves understand that the perception of such a snake, by the audience members, is simply a result of skillfully-applied techniques, i.e. is quite “scientific.” (For wonderful explanations ~ in the language of western science ~ of a host of other so-called yogic “miracles,” e.g. walking on water, check out the footnotes of Yogananda’s Autobiograpy of a Yogi.)

This story is used within Buddhism to illustrate the difference between what are known, on the one hand, as “emotional obscurations,” and on the other hand, “mental obscurations.” The belief in the “reality” of the snake, and the subsequent attachment (based upon fear and/or desire) that the audience members of our story have in relation to this (illusory) appearance (of the snake), is likened to the category of “emotional obscurations.” The attachment that the illusionist/magician has toward his own creations (which he knows to be illusory) is likened to “mental obscurations” ~ a more subtle level of veiling, whose resolution takes the practitioner into Buddhahood.

The story is also used in a more general way to illustrate the potential we all have, as human beings, to create a kind of “reality” which is by-and-large pleasant. We all have the potential to be “magicians,” whose mastery of a genuine “science of mind” (i.e. Buddha Dharma) allows us to know exactly what actions (of body, speech and mind) need to be taken in order to create the “appearance” of, say, health, happiness & the ease of well-being, for our selves, our loved ones and, ultimately, all living beings. Yet when we look around (in even the most superficial of ways), what we notice is that this doesn’t, for most people, seem to be happening. It’s as though we each were in possession of a most amazing & sophisticated “bio-computer” (the system of our physical & subtle bodies), but ~ through some ancient/new “mistake” ~ had somehow lost the users manual!

So now what? And what does any of this have to do with a Yoga practice? As it turns out, Yoga (in its various incarnations) is not only a great way to stay in shape (via, say, an asana practice), not only a vast & extensive spiritual tradition, but is also, like Buddhism, very much of a “science” in the sense of comprising a set of techniques which, if skillfully applied, lead to more-or-less predictable outcomes. And what are these outcomes? Physical, emotion & mental health? Yes. Inner clarity and calmness? Yes. Spiritual deepening? Yes. Yoga has also been called ~ by quite a few well-known practitioners ~ a “technology of ecstasy” âÂ?¦ which, to a western-trained scientific ear, might be a strange phrase indeed. For a phrase such as this points to something within this “science” of yoga which is decidedly wonderful, joyous, delicious in a clearly sensual way, yes? To explore this paradox more fully would take us beyond the scope of this essay âÂ?¦ but for now suffice it to say that “science,” in the way that we (as westerners) usually think of it, is not the only “ingredient” necessary for a Yoga practice which aspires to “Alchemy” ~ to birthing something (which might be nothing) beyond the sum of its parts. There’s something more âÂ?¦

To tease out what this “something more” might be, let’s return for a moment to magic, and consider the distinction between (for lack of better words) “black magic” and “white magic.” This distinction, for me, has mostly to do with how the magician/illusionist is using power: Is his/her use of power (knowledge, energy, shakti, will) a benefit to all involved âÂ?¦ Is it a catalyst to ever-increasing joy, clarity & freedom for all beings? Or does his/her use of power require the “dis-empowerment,” deception or subjugation of others? Is this the kind of “magic” that engenders/empowers a child-like awe & wonder, a love of and trust in the universe? Or is it the kind of “magic” which engenders fear, suspicion, a shrinking-back from our natural expanded state, our natural perfection?

My intuition is that “magic” of a positive, empowering sort, is a necessary ingredient for a Yoga practice that wishes to access those “alchemical moments” of freshness, joy and ~ every now & again ~ an un-speakable ecstasy. That we need, all of us, not only to become magicians (esoteric scientists) ~ to use skillfully the various mundane & esoteric technologies that are at our disposal; but also that we stand to benefit greatly by cultivating the capacity to be “awed” (continuously!) by the kaleidoscopic unfolding of our worlds (bodies, minds) âÂ?¦ much in the way that an audience-member might be “awed” by a theatre performance, or magic show âÂ?¦ even though they know all along that it’s “just pretend.”

In my own journey, what I’ve noticed is that the practice of reading & writing poetry is one thing that keeps me open to “magic” of this sort. That the use of metaphor, in particular ~ of finding similarity between things previously considered “different,” of bridging conceptual frameworks ~ tends to keep my mind & senses alive to the magical, miraculous quality of it all âÂ?¦ a practice which spills over into, informs, and is itself then nourished by my Yoga practice.

That rather than being fierce adversaries, “science” and “magic” (with a little help from poetry) might become, in the context of a Yoga practice, best of friends âÂ?¦ That their relationship might in fact ignite the alchemical fire within which our Yoga practice can, at long last, learn ~ like stars upon a blossoming orchard at night ~ to shine.

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